Director: Ben Steinbauer
Documentary features appearances from: Jack Rebney, Ben Steinbauer, Keith Gordon, Nick Prueher & Joe Pickett

(out of five)

Winnebago Man suffers from being either too short or too unfocused. I just caught a screening of this 2009 documentary at The Gene Siskel Film Center, and one thing I couldn’t shake is the sense that I was watching the quintessential Social/Cultural Documentary or as I like to call them, pop-docs. Ben Steinbauer’s feature is more interesting than a playful polemic like Super Size Me, and it’s more substantive than many recent biographical documentaries of celebrities or artists, but what Winnebago Man has in substance and engagement, it lacks in focus and cohesion.
Steinbauer’s saga begins several years ago when he was introduced to a dubbed tape of a blooper reel from an industrial film for Winnebago Industries. The tape had already found itself a cult following prior to Youtube, let alone any notion of videos going viral. Steinbauer couldn’t escape his desire to find the man featured in the tape who constantly erupted in expletives when he dropped a line or when flies veered into shot. So he set off to find the loose cannon that was Jack Rebney.
Because the original, bootlegged versions of the outtakes, largely, included no credits and Jack Rebney had not jumped into the Youtube spotlight to interact with his fans, Steinbauer has to travel through old videotape traders–visiting with the founders of The Found Footage Festival and talking with the hosts of an underground version of America’s Funniest Home Videos, The Show With No Name–and has to provide a pocket history of a tape trading and dubbing culture that existed, and flourished in certain circles, prior to Youtube.
This history feels necessary both to communicate the depth of the director’s obsession and to refresh the internet-addled memories of the viewer. Even though Youtube hasn’t even been around for a decade, it’s hard to imagine recording shows on tape and dubbing them sometimes. Steinbauer also has to take a detour through viral video, internet/Youtube fame, and cyber bullying to fill in knowledge gaps for his viewers. These are both helpful crash-courses, but are done with a lot of style and done very quickly, almost mimicking the artless, joyless process of Rebney’s industrial film which is at the center of the documentary. The first half hour of this 87-minute film is spent on making sure we all remember videotape and/or understand Youtube.
Winnebago Man doesn’t really get started until Steinbauer finally tracks down the elusive Rebney in a northern California mountain town. Rebney is smart, charismatic, and endlessly fascinating. People who’ve spent time in film or entertainment tend to fall into one of two categories: insufferable and dry–trying to play up their humanity and downplay the hijinks of a high-flying career, or their insightful, imbued with a knowledge of how to work with the camera; Rebney is most certainly the latter.
Jack Rebney is a complex collection of contradictions, he’s obviously distilled a bit for the film, but even this slim version of his character is engaging and hilarious. Rebney has spent the last 15 years as the caretaker for a mountain fishing resort, living in a spare, run-down cabin stuffed with books. He hasn’t completely shut himself off, though he does seem to fancy himself as somewhat hermetic, he does have a computer and he’s not oblivious to his “fame.”
The relationship forged between filmmaker and subject is an interesting one, and in many ways, this bond is what Winnebago Man is all about. Because Steinbauer can’t decide whether he wants a film about his obsession or Rebney, the confluence of the two reluctantly becomes a focal point. And this is where the film becomes it’s most interesting and it’s most flawed. Steinbauer is selling the film as something about him to Rebney, trying to assuage Rebney’s fears that he’ll only be made a fool further by this documentary. However, Steinbauer so badly wants to give, or rather, make Rebney take to the soapbox which has been thrust in front of him and embrace the people who’ve embraced his video.
This conflict is certainly more fruitful than it is problematic, and as Steinbauer argues during the aforementioned conflict with Rebney, it does humanize “The World’s most Angry Man.” It does more than that, in fact, it almost lionizes him. It’s certainly a better way to be remembered than by this.